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Can customer service get any worse than this?


(MoneyWatch) Earlier this year I wrote about an incident on Spirit Airlines, in which a dying veteran was refused a refund after finding out he was not medically cleared to fly, and the airline somehow tried to defend its policy before semi-relenting. Well, last week Delta Air Lines (DAL) went Spirit one better (or worse, as the case may be), when a flight crew is said to have "humiliated" a double-amputee Marine in front of a planeload of passengers, bringing the wounded veteran to tears.

You can read the full, sad story elsewhere, but the short version is that Marine Corporal Christian Brown, who had lost both legs in an explosion in Afghanistan, was wheeled aboard a Delta flight from Atlanta to Washington, and several passengers in first class immediately offered up their seats. The flight attendant refused to allow the seat change, and wheeled Cpl. Brown to the last row of the plane, reportedly bumping him clumsily into armrests the entire way. Despite the admonitions of other military and civilian passengers on the plane, the crew would not permit the switch because the aircraft door was being closed.

A two-tour Marine Corps veteran was reportedly humiliated to the point of tears by callous airline employees. Think about that.

To call this disgusting incident "bad service" is to trivialize it. Still, it was a customer service failure -- albeit a truly egregious one -- and as in all such situations, much of the final outcome rests on the company's handling of the matter. History has shown that it is indeed possible for a customer disaster, or even the worst public relations nightmare, to be overcome with the right response. Doing so successfully requires:

1. An immediate, real, believable and unqualified apology
2. An explanation (only if necessary) without excuses or even a hint of defensiveness
3. Absolute avoidance of vague, circuitous or patronizing language, or other fluff
4. A decisive, specific action promised, and immediately taken exactly as described

So how did Delta react to the incident? You can read the company's initial blog comments here, and a follow-up here. Parts of it actually read better than most corporate apologies, but all-in-all I would call it a decently written failure. I could break it down line-by-line and explain how they blew it, but space here won't allow. In general, though:

- The response is predictably corporate and bloated. It reads only slightly better than your standard damage control press release from the executive office, not like a heartfelt, human apology to a wounded and badly wronged individual. The airline talks more about itself and its 80,000 employees than it does Cpl. Brown. It refers to the incident as a "negative experience."

- It makes excuses: "We found that in our haste to accommodate his request for an earlier flight than originally booked -- one that was already being boarded when he arrived at the gate -- we clearly missed opportunities to better serve him." Delta is effectively saying, in double-talk, that in an effort to do him a favor (how nice of them), they inadvertently treated him horribly. Hmmm.

- It uses puffed-up yet empty platitudes, such as "We have the utmost respect and admiration for our active duty military and veterans who make tremendous sacrifices to protect and sustain the freedoms we enjoy every day." Delta seems to be making an patriotic, emotional play but in a pathetically transparent, self-affirming manner.

If the company had such a pervasive and sincere respect for the military -- or customers in general, for that matter -- it would ensure that such a serious value was unfailingly embedded in its culture, policies and practices, just as are (presumably, hopefully) safety and operational procedures. I don't doubt that the people and management of the airline respect and appreciate our servicemen and women, as most people do and should. But in this context it falls flat at best, and is disingenuous at worst.

To be fair, Delta's response does, in fact, contain some decent and appropriate language, and it is probably well-intentioned. But the "right words" are buried in so much nonsense that they lose their value and credibility.

It's tempting to say "Hey, it's a couple of bad apples in a big company," and cut Delta some slack. Maybe I should. But this is a company and an industry that has no shortage of service complaints, and this is not just another grumpy flight attendant story; these apples are so exceptionally rotten that they reflect directly on the company's inability to maintain standards and culture. In a functional company culture, no matter how large, no one capable of treating people this way should ever sneak by.

When asked if he'd ever fly Delta again, Brown understandably said "Hell, no." And to me, this is a level of customer abuse for which a company should have no expectation of being given a second chance. But were he to be forgiving enough to even consider it, the airline should see to it that Brown flies first class for the rest of his life. That's the least it can do.

Image courtesy of Flickr user DearEdward

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